Book Review: Debra Adelaide’s The Innocent Reader is a book lover’s delight

In her new collection of essays, through the lens of reflecting on her reading and writing, Debra Adelaide reveals much of her own story. An avid reader from a young age, Adelaide recounts her early encounters with Tolkien at the local library, laments her own inability to reduce the number of books in her home (no matter how many she gives away or donates), and talks about the books and the writers who are now intimately connected in her memory to the most important, and sometimes heartbreaking, moments of her life.

The book is The Innocent Reader, is not Adelaide’s first foray into books about books, but certainly her most personal. It is divided into three sections: Reading, Writing, and Reading + Writing. For Adelaide, it is clear that the two activities are inextricably linked, and that it is only through reading widely and reading with a deep appreciation for the work of other writers that one can truly come to an understanding of what it is to write yourself.

As a teacher of creative writing, this is an opinion that can only have been strengthened by her interaction with cohort after cohort of young writing students. In the essay “Terms and Conditions” (a highlight of the collection), Adelaide sketches some figures who will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken a University Creative Writing course. Presented in a comic and somewhat frustrated manner, Adelaide is seemingly lamenting the proliferation of students who come to courses wanting not to learn but simply to be recognised as talent already fully formed.

As a collection, The Innocent Reader is sometimes joyful, sometimes cynical, sometimes weary and heartbroken, but mostly, it is nostalgic and conveys a kind of longing for the moments of pure, uninterrupted reading of a good book which become more and more infrequent as the demands of adulthood pile up.

There are many relatable and quotable pearls of wisdom to be had in its pages, as well as some serious literary criticism. For example, a discussion on Adelaide’s own novel The Women’s Pages and its link with Wuthering Heights is contained in the essay “Journey Into Uncertainty”.

There is a little of something for everyone in the pages of this book, and while the first section will appeal to anyone who has ever found pleasure in simply sitting with their nose in a book, for a person who writes, there is a little something extra to discover.

This is a book which will send you running to your bookcase, or jumping online to look for a long out of print Thea Astley novel. The Innocent Reader is that marvellous thing, a book about books which is both intelligent and accessible. It is a book I will be recommending to many people in the weeks to come.

FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Debra Adelaide’s The Innocent Reader is available now from Picador Books.

Emily Paull

Emily Paull is a former bookseller and a future librarian. Her debut book, Well-Behaved Women, was released by Margaret River Press in 2019.

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